Long exposure photography can create dynamic, and sometimes, surreal images full of motion. Whether there is a sense of tranquility, apprehension with regard to the unexpected, or an element of surprise, night images can also evoke a true sense of emotion.
Photographers who specialize in night photography are indeed a special breed. This should not be so surprising when one realizes how much in-depth understanding of light is necessary to capture that perfect photograph. Additionally, there are some rather basic tips any newbie night photographer should know. This, and more, will be covered in this edition of “After Hours Photography,” with a few night photography exercises tossed in to allow you to practice that which is covered. After all, practice – and I do mean a lot of it – will enable you to create magical night imagery!
First thing first, and that is – Know Your Camera! Whether shooting landscapes, or urban settings, trundle through the darkness not only looking for the perfect scene, but experimenting along the way. A thorough understanding of your camera, and what all of the buttons do, is essential for night photography. The last thing you will want, with little light with which to work, is to fumble with your camera and its controls. Not knowing can only make for stressful, difficult photography.
** Take a moment, and have a look at your camera controls. Pay close attention to the Mode Dial. This is where you will set how you will photograph. M = Manual, and this is where I assume you have your camera set. Most DSLR’s today only allow you to keep the shutter open for 30 seconds. For longer exposures than 30 seconds, you will need to know B, or Bulb.
The Exposure, or Shutter Speed dial will be essential to locate, as well as Aperture. If you choose to experiment with ISO (ASA), you will need to be familiar with this button. A more in depth explanation will follow a bit later.
After this, the Playback function may be important to you, and the LCD Screen can be your illuminated guide to all you need to know to make proper image taking decisions.
Invest in a Camera with Low Light Capabilities
Must you buy a top of the line DSLR? If you can, great. If not, what is essential is a camera with Manual Mode, film or a memory card, and a tripod.
Additionally, you will find a wider-aperture prime lens will allow more light in while capturing an image, and bring down noise levels. For instance, a 24mm f/1.4 is fantastic for night photography, but can be a bit pricey. If you are just starting out, consider a 50mm f/1.8 lens, which is typically reasonably priced. The difference between f/2.8, and f/1.8, is quite remarkable as the wider aperture allows an abundant amount of light in for ideal night images.
Cable Release. Remote Control. Self-Timer!
With long exposure photography, even the press of the shutter button can cause slight camera movement. The result will be image blur. If you want a clear, crisp image then do not take the chance by pressing the shutter release button with your finger.
The use of a cable release, remote control, or self-timer (10 seconds is good) will fix this.
Tripod! Tripod! Tripod! or any Steady Surface.
Night photography requires a slow shutter speed, which means the camera must experience no movement to avoid camera blur. None. Nada. Zilch!
There is no human being around who can hold any camera firmly steady below 1/60th of a second. Once the exposure time is below 1/60, a tripod or firm surface is most definitely required. Go ahead, try it, and see what happens.
The truth of the matter is, I rarely carry a tripod while exploring a busy city at night. I find them cumbersome, and a nuisance when amongst the crowds. I am no super-human to hold my camera steady, so I use what is around me – walls, railings, poles, benches, and even the pavement. Typically, more interesting composition is possible using these things. Sometimes, a little breath control is necessary as well. Yes, I hold my breath! Just be creative.
Lens Hood, or some means of shielding a lens from let’s say, the light light from a light post. Night scenes with bright lights, like cities, require a lens hood to prevent lens flares, or streaks, from the light.
Flash Light, or even Light from a Mobile Phone.
While you want to be able to find your camera controls with your eyes closed, some sort of light will be a great help to see the camera buttons, and equipment in the dark.
Turn Off Auto Focus
As much as you may love auto-focus, when you are in a low light situation this may not work as nicely as you hope. Manual focus is the way to go.
Turn out the lights in the room where you are so that you are in complete darkness, then gracefully make your way to the door. Do you reach, and touch, in various places to find your way? Your camera’s auto-focus is doing something very similar, and often can not “grab onto” anything to achieve true focus.
Is it difficult? Sure it can be, though with enough practice, focusing will become easier over time. One trick is to put the focusing ring at infinity ( ∞ ), then adjust from there, if necessary.
Turn OFF the Image Stabilizer!
When shooting from a tripod, leaving your image stabilizer turned on can often work against you, especially if there is motion in your chosen scene. Perhaps this motion are moving vehicles, moving water, or leaves rustling in the wind. The image stabilizer attempts to stabilize these movements, which results in blurring the entire image.
Do not confuse image stabilization with holding your camera steady. Seriously, can your camera make you not move?
The metering systems in all cameras are designed for use in daylight conditions. Therefore a meter reading can only be used as a “starting point”. There are a few factors in night photography that make camera meters unreliable.
There are features on all DSLR cameras that make photography at night possible. Due to the lack of lighting exposing the image generally takes much longer. This is where the slower shutter speed settings become a valuable asset. Most cameras have shutter speeds up to 30 seconds. Often indicated as 30″ on the camera.
B or Bulb setting – Once the shutter dial is adjusted to “B” or BULB, the shutter will stay open as long as the shutter button is pressed and will not close until the shutter button is released.
On film cameras, one way to see this effect in practice is to open the back of the camera when there is no film in it. Then, set the shutter dial to “B” and press the shutter button. The shutter will stay open until you decide to release it. This operation cannot be seen in the same way with a digital camera but the effect can be viewed on the LCD screen after an image is taken. Using this setting may take a small bit of practice because we automatically tend to release the shutter button as soon as we press it. As your confidence with long exposure techniques increases you will want to move beyond that and take photos with shutter speeds of several minutes of more.
T or Timed setting This setting is used in a very similar way to the “B” setting and the same effects can be achieved. The difference between the two though is that using “T” the shutter is pressed once and released to open the shutter. The button is then pressed again to close it. The advantage of this over the “B” setting is that your hands are free, and the risk of camera shake is reduced. Unfortunately, very few cameras have this setting.
When using either setting the timing is done manually by the you. Rather than depending on a cameras shutter timer, you must count off the desired seconds (or minutes) the shutter is to remain open. Often, I use the “stopwatch” on my iPhone. The risk of camera shake, especially with the “B” setting is extremely high.
In order to avoid blur from camera shake using either the B or T setting, some sort of remote release is almost essential.
ISO Setting: It is a common belief that the lower the available light, the faster the ISO rating needs to be to record enough light. Usually this is true, however, fast ISO settings are not always necessary for night photography.
Normal ISO settings (100 to 400 ISO) can be used successfully. The exposures needed would just be longer, sometimes for several seconds. Hence, the need for a sturdy support such as a tripod!
Play with the Aperture
In addition to shutter speed (which determines exposure time), you can play around with the aperture size of your digital camera. There are two scenarios here. If you set a long exposure, try to use a small aperture, such as f/16 to avoid overexposing any stationary lights. in the picture. On the other hand, if you set a short exposure, try using a larger aperture such as f/3.5 to avoid limited motion in your shot.
The more you practice, the more you will know how to develop your own nighttime photographic style.
Artificial Lighting (White Balance)
With night photography, the lighting you are using is all artificial except for any residual daylight at dusk or dawn. To complicate matters different man-made lighting sources give off different color casts. A typical night image may have numerous different types of light sources lighting the scene. These would be of different strengths and colors. This fact often adds to the impact of the night photograph.
The color casts given off by artificial lighting can be changed through the use of the White Balance setting on a digital camera.
Have you ever taken a photo at night, and there is a yellow/orange hue dominating the color? This is because your white balance setting is set to daylight, or cloudy. Change your white balance to the “light bulb,” and see the difference. If you are a bit more advanced, you can manually adjust the color temperature right in the camera.
Now that you have all the necessary tools to confidently head out into the night, let’s touch upon composition. Part of the appeal of long exposure photography is that it helps you practice your composition skills. Keep in mind that composition is key, and when using a tripod, it is best to adjust the height either above, or below, eye-level. Stand on higher ground to get a broad perspective of your scene, or use a smaller tripod to look slightly upward for a majestic feel.
Find Interesting Elements to Create an Artistic Interpretation
As you observe a scene, you will find that the elements of your composition comes in all shapes and sizes. Perhaps there is a rugged, or funky-looking, tree, a group of jagged rocks alongside calm waters, or an architectural feature in the city. These elements do not take away from your main subject, but instead adds a focal point that draws the viewer into the entire image.
No matter where you find yourself, play around with your surroundings, and don’t give up if you do not see the ideal composition right away. Move around! Avoid eye level, get high, get low, turn sideways: whatever it takes to create a stunning image. Do not expect to create fabulous night images without experimenting, and learning by trial and error.
Follow the Lines
It would be better for you to apply the same rules that are applied to landscape pictures. Lead with lines into the main part of the scene so that the viewers are lured by your impression through the darkness. You can consider the streetlights, the light from moving traffic, or even brightly lit fences as lines.
After all, lines and curves and shapes are prominent aspects of photography – from architectural to fashion. Follow them to compose your image. Frame it so that a line literally starts at one corner of the frame and extends diagonally. Instantly, you are following the rule-of-thirds, which is essential to any good photograph.
Know your Light
Light is the main ingredient of any photograph. Without it, we all would have a lot of empty frames to show off to everyone.
Choose any one particular area, and have a walk around during various times of the day, or night. Notice, at these different times, how the light is different, and how it effects a potential scene. Make a note of this, and again walk around, but this time with your camera. Take some photographs during these different times, and compare the difference in light, and how the light affects your scene.
Here are the four lighting situations you will most often see used in long exposure photography:
Sunset or sunrise. It’s fairly obvious why. These are beautiful times to take photos. A good time to take long exposure photos is when the sun is below the horizon (before sunrise or after sunset) as there is less contrast and the light levels are lower, allowing longer shutter speeds.
Twilight. Also known as the blue hour because of the color of light at this time. This is the period between sunset and night (or night and sunrise) when light levels are low and the fading light illuminates everything in a brilliant glow.
Overcast days (for landscape photography). This is popular with photographers who use nine or ten stop neutral density filters to obtain long shutter speeds during the day. If the sun was out, especially during the spring and summer months, the light would be too harsh for good landscape photography. But on a cloudy day, moving clouds add interest to the sky.
Sunny weather (for architectural photography). Some photographers take long exposure photos of buildings during the day. A requirement is that there are clouds in the sky. Moving clouds create the contrast between the buildings and the changing sky that you need for a successful long exposure photo.
Look for Interesting Lighting Sources
Look for bridges, piers, city buildings, boats, the stars and moon. All of these emit light that’s excellent for reflecting off the surface of the water. Experiment with different locations to get different colors and shapes.
For instance, light from the sky will reflect and brighten up the water smoothly and uniformly. But look at the reflections of buildings and you see something more abstract. Geometric shapes appear because of the angularity of the buildings. Whether you want the simplicity of a clear night sky to light up the ocean or lake or the complexity that man-made structures brings, find interesting lights to enhance the look of the water.
With a long exposure, you have many creative options when it comes to photography. This includes capturing motion. For example, have you ever wondered how professional photographers shoot pictures of trails of car lights as they zoom down the highway at night? It is all due to long exposures. Try to keep this in mind the next time you’re taking a night photo – you don’t have to restrict yourself to still images.
With extremely low light levels, moving subjects such as people walking will not register in the image so long as there is very little light shining upon them. Cars are a good example of using this technique.
With long shutter speeds and moving cars, the headlights and taillights will register as streaks. The cars themselves will not register on the image. This effect can also be used at fairgrounds where amusements lighting can be recorded while moving.
Fast Shutter Speed – If you want the movement in your night photos to be clear an in focus, use fast shutter speeds. Because of the low light, a larger aperture/higher ISO will be needed
Slow Shutter Speed – If you want to blur the motion, use slow shutter speeds, smaller apertures, and a lower ISO.
Remember that when you lower the ISO, you should be setting a longer exposure to maximize the available light you’re working with. Nighttime images also tend to look very grainy because photographers bump up the ISO to compensate for the lack of light. But in doing so, you limit yourself to the amount of time you can expose a scene. The longer you leave the shutter open, the more the motion of your subject will appear.
So, there you have it – the basic tools to get you started with night photography. It may seem a bit intimidating at first, but I guarantee, with practice, you can produce absolutely fabulous night images. Of course, daytime is fantastic for photography, but it is after hours when the magic begins.
Shadows become wildly different, and the twinkling lights of any urban setting, large or small, create an ambience like no other. I often photograph London at night. This bustling cosmopolitan city becomes almost vulnerable after the sun goes down, and there is a tranquility about her during this time like no other. The architecture shows off beautifully as it is illuminated in the night sky, not to mention the mystery of what might be around the corner.
Landscapes, too, offer brilliant opportunities during the night hours. There is a bit more difficulty as there may be very little light, unless the full moon shines brightly above. The solitude of nighttime landscape images can evoke emotions that can create beautiful stories. Mountain ranges, or rolling rivers, and the calmness of lakes offer a sense of serenity that I completely adore.